Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: Dr. Rianna Vandergaast of Imanis Life Sciences On The 5 Leadership Lessons She Learned From Her Experience
As part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rianna Vandergaasat, Ph.D., Principal Scientist at Imanis Life Sciences.
January 10, 2021, Imanis Life Sciences, Rochester MN
Dr. Vandergaast serves as principal scientist at Imanis Life Sciences. Most recently, she led the development of IMMUNO-COV™, the first commercial test to quantitate SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibodies. Vandergaast also oversees cell-line development, which includes Imanis’ reporter gene cell lines, as well as numerous stable cell lines that that her team generates to support ongoing oncolytic virus research.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was inspired to go into science by those close to me. My father was an environmental scientist, and my mother was a teacher who adored math and science.
I will never forget my seventh-grade water quality project that required me and my father to collect water samples from around our neighborhood together. That is when I really fell in love with doing science — the rest is history.
In high school, molecular biology was a subject I grew to admire and love very quickly. When I visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison to learn about their graduate program in Biochemistry, I just knew it was the right place for me. While pursuing my PhD there, I learned more about both the natural world and myself through my studies.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
An experience that really impacted my professional journey was meeting Stacy Erholtz. She was cured using the viral therapy that Imanis’ founders developed to target cancer. It was a powerful and humbling experience to see first-hand how work on oncolytic virotherapies can impact lives like Stacy’s, and strengthened my commitment to the work I was doing at Imanis.
Another experience that had a similar effect on my work perspective was making my very first product sale. It was my first direct encounter with a customer, and they wanted to purchase a cell line that I had made. As a scientist, I’ve always hoped that my work was useful, but having an outside customer want to purchase something I made was a kind of affirmation I hadn’t yet experienced.
Imanis has always been incredibly supportive of me and my journey. A prime example of this happened two years ago when I broke my leg playing baseball. I was unable to put any weight on the leg for ten weeks. The company made allowances for me to get around and do my work effectively, something I have tried to exemplify in my duties as well.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
This story feels like yesterday. At one point I was charged with overseeing our marketing activities, including developing the company website. Instead of using our company number, I made the mistake of posting my personal home phone number on the company contact page. Shortly after the site went live, my husband started to receive several calls at home. He called me in a panic asking why couriers were calling him inquiring about shipping Imanis products overseas and requesting technical scientific information. After being very confused for a while I finally found the error on the website.
The best piece of advice and lesson learned from that chaos I can give is this: No matter how many things you have going on, make sure you take your time to double or triple check your work!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Imanis has an unwavering commitment to the advancement of science. For many companies, profitability rules decision making. But at Imanis, leading scientific breakthroughs is the primary focus. Imanis is about making a difference in the world by putting people in a better position than they were yesterday. We strive to do this by being a leader in laboratory assays and research services to accelerate the development of a broad range of next-generation therapies.
From the inside, it’s the teamwork and family environment that makes Imanis stand out. Our scientists are not just great scientists, but more importantly they are great people. Getting to work with these people every day feels like a real blessing. Our Director of Operations, Lukkana Suksanpaisan, pours her heart into this company and it is truly amazing to work for her.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Most recently I have been working on our neutralizing antibody test, IMMUNO-COV™. This test specifically detects virus-neutralizing antibodies (the antibodies that can stop SARS-CoV-2 from infecting cells) and evaluates their titer (quantities), thereby assessing the strength and durability of a person’s protection against COVID-19 over time.
Now that we are living in “a new world” — the COVID-19 world — and COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to be distributed, this test will help assess people’s risk of COVID-19 infection. Knowing this risk will help people to make informed decisions about what activities are safe (after consulting a healthcare provider). It will also help with prioritizing distributions of vaccines and vaccine boosters.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
STEM is a broad discipline of highly educated individuals that it is hard to define and suggest for the whole group. I have only experienced support and affirmation from men and women within my profession.
However, I do acknowledge that there can be differences between biological STEM fields and other STEM fields. While women are relatively well-represented in the biological sciences, in the mathematical sciences, for example, there is still a large gender discrepancy. Because I have not experienced this discrepancy, I do not have specific recommendations as to where I would change the status quo.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
The challenge for women in STEM is the same challenge for women across all industries: the work-life balance.
Biology dictates women to be the ones having kids, and there is social and scientific pressure for women to breastfeed. The challenge comes when you want to advance your career and be a committed mother for your family. Especially when your children are young children, there may be times when you need to step away from your experiment to breastfeed or pump breast milk, a challenge that men don’t face.
In STEM it is also difficult to get back into the workforce after taking time off. This makes it challenging for women who take a couple of years off to raise a family to get competitive positions for which they are otherwise qualified. As such, fewer women tend to rise to top STEM positions as compared to men.
I personally had an unexpected, amazing opportunity. During my postdoctoral work, my son was born just as the lab was being shut down. Because of the lab transition, my advisor arranged for me to write manuscripts on my research while at home with my son. For one year I was able to work part-time to keep up my science credentials while also raising my child. Unfortunately, these types of experiences are not common. I think it would be great if there were more part-time STEM positions available for women, to better allow for balancing career and family.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
The myth that women who want to be a part of this field are “nerds”, “dorky”, or socially awkward. Some of us may be, but the reality is that women who become scientists are multicultural, have varying personalities and are each unique. Women bring in strengths and different perspectives, which are essential to evolution and advancement. Some women still want a traditional role of managing a home and we must recognize that you don’t have to break every gender role in order to be a good scientist.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Lead by example. No task should be beneath you, and always remember that actions speak louder than words. You must always be accountable to your team, and not set yourself above others. For example, if I go into the lab and I fill up the garbage bin, I have a responsibility to empty as much as anyone else on my team.
- Spend time learning the strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities of your team. I have a wonderful team here at Imanis, who all get along so well but also each have their own individual strengths and weaknesses. I’ve learned that as a supervisor it’s important to know when it is appropriate to hold someone’s hand on projects and when to let them fly on their own. When developing IMMUNO-COV™, we did what we called a “MEGAprep” to make enough material to run 5 million tests. I was confident that a team member who had only been with Imanis for five months could lead part of the project, and it was great seeing that team member succeed. Letting people play to their strengths is important, but helping them to turn their weaknesses into strengths is truly empowering.
- Invest in the development of your teams skills. Understand where your team’s weaknesses lie. Spending time training team members to accomplish their goals and overcome their weaknesses will not only pay off for the company, but it will help them grow as people. I have had team members who struggle with mathematical problems and I know I need to check their numbers carefully, but the process always includes having them try the calculations first. If I need to correct their calculations, I show them my process step-by-step to help them learn and better this particular skill.
- Think of how your actions impact your team. I am still learning this myself, and often need to remind myself that each person on my team has their own aspirational goals. While I want to continuously engage them in tasks that build up the company, I must also understand that they have lives and goals outside of my own and beyond the company. I try to hold a weekly meeting with each team member to better understand how projects are going and if there is something that they really like or dislike about a project, and why. Accomplishing our collective goals together as a team is how we move forward as one unit.
- Be grateful for your team.It can be easy to forget to express your appreciation of everyone’s hard work and commitment, but daily and minor workplace dynamics can lead to milestones. In my spare time, I like to papercraft and make team magnets that say things like “jawsome” with a shark on it. When someone works really hard, I stick these magnets on their desks. It is a small way to show my appreciation and acknowledge their efforts. And when people hit the one-year milestone at Imanis, we bring in treats to celebrate.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
First, acknowledge that you are a team. Think about the team as a symbiotic unit where you depend on each member, just as they depend on you. While you may be the leader, it is essential to have good relationships between each person in order for the system to thrive. Help your team truly feel like they are working together to achieve common goals by investing time to foster positive team interactions.
What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
This goes back to the five leadership lessons I mentioned earlier. I think you need to know the strengths of each of your team members and know how to put those strengths to use. You cannot rely on just one person and must lean on senior and junior members as appropriate. Understand that you can’t do everything and will need to ask certain team members for help, so know which team members are capable of taking on additional responsibilities. There will be times when you will fail, but don’t take it so seriously that it paralyzes your approach.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There is an incredibly long list of people I could mention, including my parents, my wonderful husband, and so many of my teachers.
But in terms of my career, it is my graduate school advisor, Dr. Paul Friesen, who was pivotal in shaping me as a scientist. Often professors are mostly focused on getting grants and writing papers, and not on mentoring students. But Paul was completely committed to training his students. I would not be the scientist I am today without the training I received in his lab. Whenever we gave him a paper, he used a green pen to mark up every inch of the paper with revisions, insights and perspectives, helping us learn to be better writers. I remember one case when I was presenting lab meeting, which I thought would be fairly brief…little did I know we would spend forever dissecting one particular piece of data. I must give a ton of credit to Paul for how I approach science and lead my team today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I don’t often think about my work in this way, but I think if my work is successful/succeeding, then people are being helped. Again, this goes to my commitment to “lead by example”. I have two boys who I want to know that hard work and focus can help you succeed and make the world a better place. Sometimes I go to elementary schools to teach classes or lead science clubs. I want to show younger generations how cool science truly is!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Two things: 1) Work hard and, 2) care for others.
Everyone is capable of doing good, and we should avoid making excuses that enable ourselves from having positive impacts on others. Use that good to make the world a better place.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The first one I would give is Philippians 4:13 (New King James Version) “I can do anything through Christ who strengthens me.” We all have challenges, but I know that God is going to give me the strength and ability to do the work he has set out for me to do. When I am tired and need to keep pushing, it is He who watches over me. I remember that whatever doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger. If I put my head down and work through the challenges, the Lord will pull me through.
I would also say, Mathew 7:12 (New King James Version), “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Our decisions have implications for those around us. Treat others with respect as you hope to be treated. Work hard, knowing that you’re working to make the world a better place.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Amanda Tapping who played Col. Samantha Carter in the science fiction television series ‘Stargate’. She plays an incredibly brilliant scientist who can also kick bad guy butt! I started watching ‘Stargate’ in grad school and she became my motivating hero as someone trying to become a scientist. It would be a dream to meet Amanda Tapping, who portrayed my fictional hero.